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A beleaguered Brookland apartment complex and the local regulatory agency tasked with monitoring it are the focus of a new report published Monday morning by the Office of the D.C. Auditor.
In the report, a team from ODCA examined how efficiently D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs tracked, issued, and enforced abatement of housing code violations for Dahlgreen Courts, a nearly one-hundred-year-old set of buildings whose residents have long complained about the condition of their apartments.
The audit, initiated at the request of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, aimed to determine “whether DCRA could better protect tenants through more rigorous and timely enforcement of the housing code, and whether recordkeeping, case tracking, and reporting and communication were adequate to foster effective Council oversight on the health and safety of tenants in the District,” the audit says.
Mendelson has been one of the most high-profile public critics of DCRA, introducing a bill in January to split the agency in two. Last June, 11 out of 18 candidates running for city offices named DCRA the department “most in need of an overhaul.”
Residents of Dahlgreen Courts have battled with their property manager and affordable housing developer for years. In March, they filed a $5 million lawsuit against Mission First Housing Development Corporation, the nonprofit affordable housing developer that renovated the apartment complex in 2012, and its property management arm Columbus Property Management and Development LLC.
Dozens of tenants allege that they tested positive for “elevated levels of lead in their blood and/or Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome,” the result of “exposure to lead, mold, and other biotoxins due to negligence and other breaches of Defendants’ duties to maintain habitable housing conditions.”
In January 2017, residents told City Paper that the multi-million-dollar redevelopment did little to address a number of housing code issues, including cracked and peeling paint, lead exposure, and mold. In 2014 alone, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs noted about 160 housing code violations at the property.
The audit notes that, in December 2016, Dahlgreen Courts residents “submitted numerous complaints to DCRA.” DCRA then responded with a whole-building inspection, where inspectors issued 24 notices of violation for a whopping 105 violations in 17 units and two common areas. While those violations carried potential fines of $36,300, the violations weren’t abated until “nearly eight months later,” per the audit, and the landlord paid a fine of only $2,500 for violations in six units.
“The process for responding to housing code violation complaints allows landlords to put off remediation through extensions and delayed re-inspection. Even when fines are levied, they may not be sufficient to deter landlords from allowing conditions in their units to deteriorate,” the report says.
“Failure to enforce the housing code effectively and consistently, whether due to insufficient language in the D.C. Code and DCMR or implementation choices made at the department level, jeopardizes the health and well-being of affordable housing residents of the District. It suggests less than optimum deployment of District staff and resources,” the audit concludes. “It also opens the door to loss of affordable housing.”
The report outlines 19 measures that could remediate these procedural issues, many of them addressed to the D.C. Council. These include modifying the timeframe of abatement periods for housing violations, speeding up re-inspections for units that have received notices of violation, clarifying DCRA’s standard operating procedures, and reducing extension periods for abatement actions.
Though she told the auditor’s team that DCRA agrees that inspections “can be more efficient,” DCRA Director Melinda Bolling pushed back on some of the report’s claims in a letter submitted to the auditor’s office, included alongside her responses to the auditor’s recommendations.
Many of Bolling’s concerns appear to stem from the belief that extensive Council involvement in legislating around DCRA’s procedures would infringe on the executive branch’s authority.
“DCRA welcomed the audit and continues to stress that DCRA has made significant changes to its property maintenance division and enforcement process. … After careful review of the case study, DCRA challenges some general conclusions and exaggerations provided,” Bolling wrote.
Bolling argued that, because the audit focused on DCRA’s response to the buildings’ housing code violations, it ignored the role that agencies like the Department of Energy and Environment play in remediating lead issues. “One would read this case study and attribute all delays or responsibility to DCRA,” Bolling wrote.
She also criticized the decision to anchor the audit around Dahlgreen Courts specifically, as “it does not and did not represent DCRA’s typical enforcement of the property maintenance code … moreover, based on the Dahlgreen Courts matter, DCRA has changed its enforcement process.”
Finally, Bolling noted “methodological concerns” with the auditor’s study, and challenged ODCA for including Dahlgreen Courts tenants’ criticisms of the 2012 redevelopment in its report. “Until an expert provides evidence of poor, illegal, or unsafe construction, any statements in the case study suggesting that should be removed,” she wrote.